Professional Courtesy: Special Set of Skills by Dr. Thomas Giacobbi

Professional Courtesy: Special Set of Skills 

by Thomas Giacobbi, DDS, FAGD, editorial director, Dentaltown magazine

It’s graduation season and I know this is the time of year when new dentists ask themselves if they made the right choice. The debt burden is high and some of the popular employment options can put you on a fast track to burnout.

Consider for a moment that you’re standing in a pool of higher-ed graduates. Each year, there are 1.98 million college graduates with bachelor’s degrees, 820,100 with master’s degrees and 184,070 with doctorate or professional degrees.1

Out of nearly 3 million degrees, only 6,000 belong to dentists. That should make you feel a bit special. The yoke of educational debt, however, is a burden most graduate students will bear. There are approximately 34,000 new lawyers every year and according to CNBC, they’re also facing a degree debt burden that has outpaced inflation. Research goes on to say that 23% of their work could be automated with existing technology.2 Take this moment to be glad you work with your hands.

I know there are a few dentists out there saying that this profession is not what it used to be, and they wouldn’t recommend it to their own children.

There are a variety of issues facing new graduates that will make their futures more challenging: fewer ownership opportunities, income declines and pressure from third-party payors to reduce reimbursement.

Consider the alternatives for an intelligent college student: Graduate with an undergrad degree in engineering or computer science, land a job paying $100,000 a year to start, and by the time your dentist friend has finished school, they are $400,000 in debt and missed another $400,000 of earnings. So, the dental student is at –$800,000 and the college grad is at +$400,000, a differential of $1.2 million. It’s not all about the money and the dentist may very likely pass his friend in lifetime earnings, but the impact of this massive debt cannot be ignored.

Once you have made the commitment to finish dental school, you will need to give serious consideration to how you will practice during your career. There are likely multiple answers as your experience and location changes over time. There are two basic options in my view: “super generalist” and “focused generalist.”

In the first case, you are often in a more rural area, or at least a location with limited access to specialist practices. To serve your patient population well, you must master numerous specialty procedures. Performing at this level is lucrative and can make a nice living with a smaller practice population. The focused generalist is the more common variety of general dentist who chooses a few procedures, does them very efficiently and earns income on volume.

The other consideration for life after dental school is how much decision-making power you hope to have in your career. I have found over the years that most people drawn to the dental profession are seeking some level of autonomy in their chosen profession. Do you want to be an employee or a co-owner? Most new graduates will start out as an employee of a large group organization or an associate in private practice. I believe the long-term trend is a desire for true autonomy in clinical decision-making, materials used, technologies purchased, and procedures performed. Beware of the opportunities that offer autonomy in word but not in practice.

The future of dentistry is bright as long as we have people on Earth who like to chew their food.

Do you have advice to share with new dental graduates? Please share your comments under this column below. If you would like to send me a message via email, do so at or on Twitter @ddsTom.

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